July 5, 2005

Hackers make way for criminals

By Lucas van Grinsven, European Technology Correspondent

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Spotty teenage hackers who set offglobal email viruses are being replaced by serious onlinecrooks whose stealth attacks don't make headlines but causemore damage, security software makers said on Tuesday.

"Two years ago we stayed up all night, concerned about agreat mass-mailing worm," said Mario Juarez, a product managerat the security business unit of U.S.-based Microsoft.

"Today, we worry not about a virus that will take everymachine down, but that may attack one machine or a set ofmachines," he said in an interview at a Microsoft Tech Eddevelopers conference.

"What you see more of are a variety of attacks that arecarried out to make money, such as stealing credit card detailsor threatening a Web site with a denial of service attackunless it pays then money."

He spoke on the same day a 19-year old German man admittedin court he had written the Sasser computer worm.

In 2004 the worm knocked out an estimated one millioncomputer systems among home users and companies by spreading onthe ubiquitous Microsoft Windows operating system.

The U.S. computer giant has since had to close many openback doors in its software and fix other security holes. Afterissuing a series of patches, it claims its software is a lotsafer now. More improvements are planned.

"Today in Outlook Express, if you click on a link, thevirus program won't execute," said Detlef Eckert, seniordirector for trustworthy computing at Microsoft's Europeanorganization, referring to Microsoft's email software.

What helps is that consumers are better informed aboutviruses and worms and have become reluctant to open emailattachments that may unleash a harmful computer program.


But the targeted robberies of individuals or small groupsof people are more sophisticated than the mass-mailing wormsthat created only modest damage.

Some new viruses now infect Web sites and can then enterpersonal computers that are well protected, Eckert said.

"Very often, these customers don't know they are at risk,or even that they are being attacked," he said.

Other software security experts said there were fewerscares over mass-mailing worms this year but instead there wasa sharp increase in the number of "Trojans" that can quietlyobtain bank account details and passwords.

"We've seen many more Trojans. The more organized groupsare aiming at targeted victims. And if you're an organizedcrime group, you don't want the headlines. You may be a lotmore successful without them," said Graham Cluley, seniortechnology consultant for British anti-virus firm Sophos.

Cluley said it was too early to cry victory overmass-mailing viruses and the trend of real criminals hitting onselect groups of users meant that Microsoft programs were nolonger the default target.

Until now, teenage hackers aimed at Microsoft programs notonly because they had security holes, but also because they runon 95 percent of all computers and were the best chance for aglobal spread of a virus.

However, if the main aim is to steal money, the criminalhackers would focus on the weakest link, which in the futuremay well be non-Microsoft programs, Cluley said.

The computer security experts do not expect there will everbe perfectly safe computers. The attraction of more onlinefinancial transactions was too appealing for criminals.

"The first lock attracted a lock picker," Juarez said.